With just two games remaining in the regular season, NFL teams contending for playoff berths or jockeying for seeding will be battling for four quarters while some of the also-rans could wind up just mailing in a halfhearted effort.
However, trying to divine the mood of a locker room is tricky business. For instance, last week, Houston - after losing a tough game in overtime to Baltimore the previous Monday night - simply failed to show up for its game against Tennessee and went down by two touchdowns.
A month earlier, the Texans had shut out the Titans, 20-0. In this case, bettors who factored in a Houston emotional letdown after the Monday night loss would have been on the money.
Meanwhile, Tampa Bay should have been the easy pick over Detroit last Sunday, considering that the Buccaneers were still battling for a postseason spot and the Lions have been out of the playoff race for weeks. But Detroit, with nothing at stake, not only beat the spread but also squeezed out only its fourth win of the year, prevailing in overtime.
So while there's some merit in trying to sort out the mind-set of a team in the season's last weeks, it's dangerous to lean too heavily on the psychoanalysis.
Carolina at Pittsburgh (minus-141/2.) Undoubtedly, Steelers safety Troy Polamalu - who will stay on the sideline for the rest of the regular season to allow his injuries to heal - is the most influential defensive player of his time in determining a game's outcome. Starting with 2007, the Steelers are 8-9 in regular-season games when Polamalu is not in the lineup (33-12 when he has played). In terms of the point spread, the Steelers are 5-11-1 against the line when Polamalu is out.
Playing at home against foundering Carolina on Thursday night, the NFC North-leading Steelers are in no danger of losing the game outright.
But covering a two-touchdown spread in the bitter cold of a low-scoring game without the guy who helps create so many scoring opportunities is too much to expect. Pick: Panthers.
Tennessee at Kansas City (minus-5). The Chiefs and quarterback Matt Cassel, who was returning to action after missing just one game following an appendectomy, distinguished themselves on Sunday, winning by 27-13 on the road as three-point underdogs in St. Louis. With the San Diego Chargers breathing down their necks in the race for first in the AFC West, the Chiefs know they can't afford to slip, so they'll be playing with urgency. The Titans have been struggling all season and managed to break a six-game losing streak against Houston last week, with the Texans apparently deciding to mail it in. This week, the Titans will be up against a terrific running game and an efficient, gutsy QB. Pick: Chiefs.
San Diego at Cincinnati (plus-71/2). The Chargers are in their usual late-season playoff drive. After making their preseason backers and themselves look foolish for the first half of the season, San Diego has won six of its last seven and beaten the spread in every victory, including three games in which the Chargers were giving nine points or more. And while anything over a touchdown should give one pause, the Chargers have shown they're capable of covering big spreads.
Detroit at Miami (minus-31/2). The Lions have been overachievers all season, at least against the spread, with a 10-4 record. That ties them with Atlanta for the best record against the line in the league.
Detroit has even put together a modest two-game winning streak. Miami simply can't generate any offense and has been inconsistent all season, losing to Buffalo at home last week. The Lions, despite their 4-10 record, have played with heart - plus they have momentum and the points. Pick: Lions.
I like but don't love. Baltimore at Cleveland (plus-31/2. The Ravens are back to smashmouth football on offense and the Browns don't have a high-powered offense that can wear out Baltimore's defense, as the Texans and Saints almost did in the two previous games. Pick: Ravens.
Gun to my head. Dallas at Arizona (plus-61/2) Pick: Cowboys.
Washington at Jacksonville (minus-7). Pick: Jacksonville.
New England at Buffalo (plus-71/2). Pick: Patriots.
San Francisco at St. Louis (minus-21/2). Pick: Rams.
Indianapolis at Oakland (plus-3). Pick: Colts.
Houston at Denver (plus-21/2). Pick: Broncos.
Seattle at Tampa Bay (minus-61/2). Pick: Buccaneers.
New Orleans at Atlanta (minus-21/2). Pick: Saints.
N.Y. Giants at Green Bay (minus-3). Pick: Packers.
Vikings at Eagles (minus-141/2). Pick: Eagles.
Pick of the Week
N.Y. Jets at Chicago (over/under 36). Both teams need this game, and it should come down to which quarterback, the Jets' Mark Sanchez or the Bears' Jay Cutler, makes the fewest mistakes. And that's a coin flip.
But the more intriguing aspect of this game from a wagering point of view is the over-under point total. That 36-point total, makes plenty of sense considering that both teams have above-average defenses, and remember that the game will be played at frigid Soldier Field. But the Bears' last two games were both at low over-under marks (371/2 against New England and 34 against Minnesota) and both went over. The Jets' last game in Pittsburgh was a 36-point O/U, and that also wound up over. The trend all season has been in favor of the overs (more than 57 percent). Some in the sports wagering world believe there's a sea change going on in the NFL for over-unders, and it's just difficult for the unders to prevail at totals this low.
- Bill OrdineEndText